Following Anjali’s suggestion, I steered over to this post, “Bookshops are not dead. Long may it remain so.” Like me, James Higgs reacted negatively to Basheera Khan’s “No more bookshops? Good riddance.” There are some really good points in Higgs’s criticism, and I particularly like this one:
The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysses.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.
Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?
This, I think, is one of the major tensions the e-book will have to resolve, or at least develop alternative solutions to, in the years to come. Do we want a perfectly fungible object that the reader is free to resize and redesign according to their own tastes and needs, or do we want a through-designed, screen-independent object that preserves the aesthetic and visual choices of the author and designer? I don’t think that digital can’t do the latter — take a look at iTunes’s recent attempts to bring back album art with iTunes LP, which beats the restricted visuals of the CD, at least. But e-books to date have largely not provided for that possibility, have not sought to create those kinds of objects. Which gives printed books the aesthetic high ground.
My bigger worry, though, with criticisms like Higgs’s, is the following:
- “the experience of reading a book is fundamentally different from reading a text on a reading device. Many – and I’d contend that these are mainly people who are not compulsive readers – will not care about this distinction, but this is the market that successful booksellers are targeting.”
- “Borders and Books etc are in trouble because they are not good bookshops. There is little to distinguish one shop from the next and, on the whole, their staff are not knowledgeable about the books they sell. They clearly don’t read reviews, or subscribe to major literary periodicals.”
- “Most people don’t read seriously, and for them, these arguments will make no sense. But for the millions of people who do read compulsively, eReaders are not going to be universally welcomed.”
Now, I don’t care about the elitism in Higgs’s arguments. I’m an elitist reader, too, and I probably like the same books that he likes and would like the same bookshops and be frustrated by the same things in other readers. I do, however, object to the assumptions that
- the kinds of texts you like are inherently connected to the kinds of technology you like;
- that people who prefer either texts or technologies different from those you prefer are not “real” readers, not committed or compulsive or serious readers;
- that the class of readers you belong to is uniquely positioned to determine what the future of reading will look like, or at least ought to.
It’s this argument from authenticity that bothers me most. What’s more, it’s the same trick Khan tries to pull in her post; Khan thinks that “serious readers” would rather carry a thousand books than a handful, that they prefer the library to the bookshop — in short, that they look and act like she does.
I will say it again: reading includes many, many, many things, in every context. If we’re serious about charting the future of reading, rather than advocating for our particular preferences, we have to try to understand and account for all of them, and to do so with as few assumptions and as much good faith and openness to possibility as we can.
After all, the fact that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is fundamentally different from and not as good as the original is only an argument for preserving paintings; it isn’t an argument for abolishing JPEGs of them, or caring about their quality.